Were Human Ancestors Egalitarian?
The ongoing debate over whether human ancestors were egalitarian or hierarchical
A reader wrote in and asked me about my characterization of Graeber and Wengrow's depiction of hunter-gatherers. Surely the pair are arguing that these societies were more complex than most historians and anthropologists generally assume. Why, then, was I saying that the Davids describe hunter-gatherers as simple and childlike? Surely they're suggesting the opposite?
Re-reading my previous post, I can see where the confusion comes from. I didn't express myself very well. I'll leave the post up for now, but I may go back and edit it.
But that gives us an opportunity to discuss a topic that is essential to the book's main thesis: were human ancestors mostly egalitarian or not? This will also tie together a number of the posts written since the dawn of this Substack newsletter. Hopefully I can explain myself a bit better this time.
The Case for Egalitarian Origins
First, let's take a look at the conventional view.
Humans—in the form of our particular species, Homo sapiens—have been around for roughly 350,000 years according to the latest research. Human ancestors practiced a food procurement strategy known as foraging. How do we know this? Because that's what our closest animal relatives do. More basically, that's how all primates get their food.
The consensus view is that for the majority of that time humans lived in small, nomadic groups known as foraging bands. The reason for this was simple: food resources were not concentrated in one place but spread out across the landscape. Also, the gigantic walking meat packages that formed our favored prey were migratory and peripatetic, forcing us to range far and wide in search of both plant and animal foods.
In addition, humans practiced a unique strategy known as hunting and gathering. This strategy is enabled by the fact that humans are omnivores and can survive on an extremely wide variety of foods.
Hunting and gathering means that one part of the foraging band—usually adult males—goes out to hunt animals. Another part of the band—usually women and children—collects assorted plant foods such as leafy vegetables, berries, fruits, nuts, tubers and mushrooms. They might also go after protein sources such as insects, eggs or small animals like lizards and tortoises.
This means that if the hunters return empty-handed there will still be enough calories to survive. This is essential because our energy requirements are so much higher than other primates due to our large brains, and our food-procurement strategy is very risky and energy-intensive. Gathered foods are much less energy-dense, but are easier to procure, and so typically make up the bulk of calories in most hunter-gatherer diets. Hunting, however, provides more energy dense calories and essential nutrients in the form of meat and fat. Humans are also are the only animals that cook their food.
But crucial to this strategy is that any food procured by members of the group is shared out among all its members. That is what makes this strategy viable. That's not what other primates do. They forage alone, and generally eat only what they procure themselves. Food is consumed immediately and is shared with the rest of the group reluctantly, if at all. The necessity of food sharing may have been what shaped humans' cooperative tribal instincts and social behavior.
Although foraging bands tended to be small and mobile, band societies were comprised of many separate bands, and could be quite large and extensive. Band societies were ethno-linguistic groups who distinguished themselves from other societies by various markers such as clothing styles, hairstyles, bodily adornment, material culture, and behavioral cues. Band societies would be intimately familiar with the territory they inhabited and know exactly where to find food, water, shelter, and other resources (such as flint, fibers, ocher, shells, etc.).
Although food resources were widely scattered, at various times or seasons of the year it appears that large numbers of people congregated together in one place where food and water resources were temporarily concentrated and abundant. This also led them to adopt different social structures at different times of the year as Graeber and Wengrow spend a good deal of time discussing. However, the Davids—unlike the majority of anthropologists—see this a determined by collective voluntary choice rather than by environmental necessity.
These band societies were certainly highly differentiated from one another. They were probably a number of different group sizes, as well as a dizzying array of unique forms of social and cultural expression. But the key thing is, in none of these societies could a select group of people dominate or coerce the other members of the society.
Why not? The reason is because the conditions for coercive authority simply were not there.
Let’s take a look at what some of those conditions were. In order for coercion to take place, one person or party has to control the resources that others need in order to survive. That was not the case when everybody was self-reliant and able to procure most of what they needed directly from the surrounding environment with no intermediaries.
In addition, human populations were small and spread out. If anyone tried to dominate other members of the group, those members could simply get away from an aspiring despot by moving somewhere else.
Since bands had to be mobile because their food sources were spread out, there was little incentive to produce a lot of material goods beyond what you could carry. This made it hard for some people to accumulate a lot more wealth than others.
Additionally, all members of hunter-gatherer groups tend to be armed—especially adult males. It is thought that the use of weapons served as a powerful equalizer preventing larger or more powerful members of the group from dominating smaller or weaker ones. This is thought to be a key reason why human societies are so much less stratified that those of our closest primate relatives like chimps and bonobos, even though we derive from a shared common ancestor.
While some band societies still exhibit a degree of inequality between the sexes or between different age groups, there is no coercive authority—no one can force any other member of the group to do anything they don't want to do. There are no hereditary leaders and there are no social classes as we understand the term.
Anthropologists have noted that one particular type of society seems to be more egalitarian than rest, including between men and women and between different age groups. These societies practice what’s known as immediate return foraging. In this strategy, food is not stored or stockpiled, but rather is processed right away for immediate consumption and food processing techniques are minimal.
Although they didn't store food, immediate return foragers did often do things to maximize the return from their territory like managing game herds, digging water channels, or using fire to control and manage the landscape—a practice known as niche construction.
Immediate return hunting and gathering societies are considered true egalitarian societies. All around the world, in all sorts of different environments, every society that practiced this food procurement strategy exhibited a high degree of egalitarianism, a high level of cooperation, and nonexistent social stratification. In none of these societies do we find extreme inequality. The available evidence indicates that humans practiced this subsistence strategy throughout the Paleolithic era—the span of time characterized by the use of stone tools which extends back several million years.
Anthropologists study groups that continue to practice this technique in order to get an idea of what human social structures might have been like during this period. While modern hunter-gatherer groups are certainly not living relics, they do offer our best glimpse into the kinds of conditions we lived under for most of our existence. James Suzman is a South African anthropologist who has worked with the Khoisan hunter-gatherers in Africa for many years and has written books about their culture such as Affluence without Abundance. Of their culture, he writes:
...the Ju/’hoansi’s affluence was based on their unyielding confidence in the providence of their environments and their skills at exploiting this. Ju/’hoansi still make use of well over 150 different plant species, and have the knowledge to hunt and trap pretty much any animal they choose to. As a result, they only ever worked to meet their immediate needs, did not store surpluses, and never harvested more than they could eat in the short term.
For the Ju/’hoansi, that fundamental axiom of modern economics, “the problem of scarcity”, simply did not apply. Where this holds that it is human nature to have infinite wants and limited means, the Ju/’hoansi had few wants that were simply met.
This was possible because, above all, they were – and still are – “fiercely egalitarian”. They could not abide inequality or showing off, and had no formalised leadership institutions. Men and women enjoyed equal decision making powers, children played largely non-competitive games in mixed age groups, and the elderly, while treated with great affection, were not afforded any special privileges. This in turn meant that no-one bothered to accumulate wealth or influence, and never over-exploited their marginal environment.
Anthropologists emphasize that hunter-gatherers are not angels, nor are they children, and have the exact same feelings and tendencies as anyone else including selfishness, egoism, and the desire to seek power over others. It's just that, in immediate-return foraging societies, these tendencies can't be converted into permanent authority or coercive power because the conditions that allow some people to do that simply are not there. It would also be dangerous. The members of hunter-gatherer societies depend on one other to survive, and tolerating aggrandizing or selfish behavior would threaten the existence of the entire group. And, as I described last time, hunter-gatherers have developed a number social strategies expressly designed to keep this from happening.
Is This Bad News?
Now, normally this is seen as positive news by people who advocate for a more egalitarian social order. Often these societies are seen as concrete examples of Marx's notion of "primitive communism" by people sympathetic to communism or socialism. It is potentially even more relevant to the anarchist tradition, as the term anarchism literally means "without rulers." The fact that we could organize our societies without rulers for at least 95 percent of our history would seem to be encouraging, would it not?
Here, however, is where things get strange. One would assume that an anthropologist like David Graeber—who was a very prominent radical anarchist and activist (he even wrote a book entitled Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology)—would want to promote this idea. Yet in The Dawn of Everything—in contrast to the majority of mainstream anthropologists—he and Wengrow argue that this view is fundamentally mistaken. Why?
Because, according to Graeber and Wengrow, if this story is true, then it is basically a secular retelling of the biblical Garden of Eden story. It is a “fall from primordial innocence,” where we used to be egalitarian but can't be anymore because we were forever cast out of the Garden. They also connect this myth to the secular theories of Enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes and Rousseau. Here is how they describe the implications of the egalitarian origins theory (emphasis mine):
Far from rushing blindly for their chains like Rousseau's savages, [anthropologist James] Woodburn's 'immediate-return hunter-gatherers' understand precisely where the chains of captivity loom, and organize much of their lives to keep away from them. This might sound like the basis of something hopeful or optimistic. Actually, it's anything but.
What it suggests is, again, that any equality worth the name is only possible for all but the very simplest foragers. What kind of future might we then have in store? At best, we could perhaps imagine (with the invention of Star Trek replicators and other immediate gratification devices) that it might be possible, at some point in the distant future, to create something like a society of equals once more. But in the meantime, we are definitively stuck. In other words, this is the Garden of Eden narrative all over again—just, this time, with the bar for paradise set even higher. (p. 129)
Furthermore, the Davids argue that this story cements the notion that for hundreds of thousands of years we were like innocent children, and then somewhere along the line we decided to "grow up" and establish cities, states, rulers, governments, administrators, bureaucracy, literature, science, and so forth—an idea they associate with Anne Robert Jacques Turgot. That's why they entitle their first chapter (and a published paper), "Farewell to Humanity's Childhood." In that chapter, describing the narratives offered up by Big History authors, they write (emphasis mine):
For [Jared] Diamond and [Francis] Fukuyama, as for Rousseau some centuries earlier, what put an end to...equality—everywhere and forever—was the invention of agriculture, and the higher population levels it sustained. Agriculture brought about a transition from 'bands' to 'tribes'. Accumulation of food surplus fed population growth, leading some 'tribes' to develop into ranked societies known as 'chiefdoms'. Fukuyama paints an almost explicitly biblical picture of this process, a departure from Eden: 'As little bands of human beings migrated and adapted to different environments, they began their exit out of the state of nature by developing new social institutions.' They fought wars over resources. Gangly and pubescent, these societies were clearly heading for trouble.
It was time to grow up and appoint some proper leadership. Hierarchies began to emerge. There was no point in resisting, since hierarchy—according to Diamond and Fukuyama—is inevitable once humans adopt large, complex forms of social organization. Even when the new leaders began acting badly—creaming off agricultural surplus to promote their flunkies and relatives, making status permanent and hereditary, collecting trophy skulls and harems of slave girls, or tearing out rivals' hearts with obsidian knives—there could be no going back. Before long, chiefs had managed to convince others they should be referred to as 'kings', even 'emperors'. (pp. 10-11)
They then go on to quote Jared Diamond in The World Until Yesterday giving perhaps the most explicit articulation of the Futility Thesis ever, concluding: "Alas for all of you readers who are anarchists and dream of living without any state or government…you'll have to find some tiny band or tribe willing to accept you, where no one is a stranger and where kings, presidents and bureaucrats are unnecessary." Yikes! Those are fighting words!
However, in order to combat this idea, they dismiss the notion of social development and the categorization of different societies altogether, saying that no categories can adequately explain what we observe. Clearly they believe that the "egalitarian origins" theory articulated by Christopher Boehm and other anthropologists would confirm the secular Garden of Eden narrative spun by the authors of Big History. Of Boehm's thesis, they write (emphasis mine):
[Christopher] Boehm assumes that all human beings until very recently chose instead to follow the exact same arrangements—we were strictly 'egalitarian for thousands of generations before hierarchical societies began to appear'—thereby casually tossing humans back into the Garden of Eden once again. Only with the beginnings of agriculture, he suggests, did we all collectively flip back to hierarchy. Before 12,000 years ago, Boehm insists, humans were basically egalitarian, living in what he calls 'societies of equals, and outside the family there were no dominators'.
So, according to Boehm, for about 200,000 years political animals all chose to live just one way; then, of course, they began to rush headlong into their chains, and ape-like dominance patterns re-emerged. The solution to the battle between 'Hobbesian hawks and Rouseauian doves' turns out to be: our genetic nature is Hobbesian, but our political history is exactly as described by Rousseau. The result? An odd insistence that for many tens of thousands of years, nothing happened. (p. 87)
Which is a curious way to summarize Boehm's arguments. It's awfully strange for an anthropologist—especially an anarchist one—to say that for thousands of years "nothing happened" just because we didn't have states, leadership, governmental institutions, or hierarchical societies. And it's also baffling to imply that this means that people everywhere chose to follow "the exact same social arrangements." How does that follow from what Boehm's said? In fact, he says the opposite, as do other specialists on hunter-gatherer societies. In fact, they present evidence in their own book which indicates that band societies were incredibly socially complex and probably much larger and more sophisticated than we give them credit for. They just weren't hierarchical, and so this means, according Graeber and Wengrow, that "nothing happened" for thousands of years. Even more pointedly, they write:
Scholars still write as if those living in earlier stages of economic development, and especially those who are classified as 'egalitarian', can be treated as if they were all literally the same, living in some collective group-think: if human differences show up in any form—different 'bands' being different from each other—its is only in the same way that bands of great apes might differ. Political self-consciousness, or certainly anything we'd not call visionary politics, would have been impossible. (pp. 95-96)
Which is just a gross mischaracterization of Christopher Boehm's position and that of most other anthropologists.
This is what I was pushing back against last time. By tacitly accepting this portrayal, they acquiesce to the Futility Thesis supposedly served up by the authors of Big History that they reference, none of whom happen to be anthropologists. Fukuyama may believe that political order and political consciousness began with the advent of farming ten thousand years ago, but no serious anthropologist would make that claim. But in order to debunk those ideas, they end up making a lot of assertions which can be easily refuted.
Among these assertions are that population size and complexity had no effect on social organization; and neither did food surpluses or other forms of stored, transferable wealth. They explicitly argue, in fact, that there is no link whatsoever between population density, technological development, sedentism, and political centralization or hierarchy. I’m sorry, that’s not only muddle-headed, but demonstrably wrong. Peter Turchin criticizes that idea here: An Anarchist View of Human Social Evolution (Cliodynamica).
By explicitly rejecting material conditions as a shaper of human social order they throw out a lot of the most potent explanations for human sociocultural evolution that have been developed over the years, and that’s what I was objecting to last time.
This is the main criticism in Daniel Dutton's series of podcasts. He points out that consideration of similar material circumstances and environmental conditions does not mean that everyone in the Paleolithic period had the exact same social arrangements, or that no one had any agency, or that there was no political consciousness. It simply means that environmental conditions put constraints on societies including how unequal they were, how much power certain people could wield over others, or how much wealth certain people or groups could accumulate. These limiting factors caused prehistoric societies to have much the same—but not identical—social structures during the Paleolithic. Furthermore, he argues that inequality is primarily a result of asymmetries of bargaining power and whether some people can control the resources that others need to survive, and not voluntary social choice, which would imply that some cultures simply “chose” things like despotism, conflict, and slavery.
Were human ancestors more hierarchical that we thought?
Recently, a number of anthropologists have questioned the dominant egalitarian origins theory. They also question to what extent band societies were the only form of social organization during the Paleolithic, or even the primary one.
This idea has been most extensively articulated by anthropologists Manvir Singh and Luke Glowacki. They published a paper in 2021 which argued a lot of these points and fortunately is unpaywalled. Singh also wrote an article for a popular audience describing the paper's thesis for Aeon Magazine. He has also Tweeted some of his research, and I have used several of his Tweets in previous articles. I also touched on their work in The Streetlight Effect and Historical Amnesia, which is still the most popular article on this site.
The most fundamental piece of evidence is the fact that we know of many societies around the world that did not practice any sort of food production or cultivation, yet nonetheless had significant degrees of social stratification and wealth differentiation including chiefs, commoners, and even slaves. As Singh notes, "throughout history [hunter-gatherers] built societies as complex and stratified as many agriculturalists."
The most well-studied of these were the Native American cultures of the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. They lived in villages of up to 1,000 people, had chiefs who conspicuously competed for status with rival chiefs, and even kept a significant number of slaves. They had at least three social classes who distinguished their status by wearing lip rings called labrets. They had private property, although it was typically owned by households rather than individuals. Yet none of these societies practiced farming, instead subsisting primarily on wild fish from salmon runs which they stored up for the winter, as well as hunting and gathering during the summer.
Another example was the Calusa people who lived along the coasts and estuaries of southwest Florida. The Spanish encountered the Calusa in the 1500s and wrote vivid descriptions of their society. The Calusa chief ruled over 50 to 60 villages from the “capital” of Mound Key, where he was surrounded by a priestly retinue and lived in a massive structure the Spanish described as a "palace" which could hold up to 2,000 people. They collected tribute from neighboring societies, qualifying them as an "empire" ruled by a hereditary "king." Yet they practiced no agriculture, instead relying on fish which they kept alive in huge living aquariums known as watercourts.
Another culture known from archaeology is the Jōmon culture of prehistoric Japan, which preceded the arrival of rice farmers from the mainland 1,500 years ago and were the among the earliest cultures we know of to use pottery. The Jōmon site of Sannai-Maruyma, discovered in 1992, is an extensive settlement of nearly 40 hectares (99 acres), with evidence of large-scale architecture and underground storage pits. However, there is no evidence they practiced any sort of farming; rather the settlement relied on seafood and tree nuts as their main food sources.
Anthropologists describe the hunter-gatherers living in these types of arrangements as “complex hunter-gatherers,” or “affluent foragers.” Graeber and Wengrow see this as a cop-out. They argue that arbitrary categories like “complex hunter-gatherers” are merely ways to salvage increasingly untenable categories that fall apart under close scrutiny because so many hunter-gatherers don't behave the way anthropologists insist they "should" behave. In other words, a sort of "No True Scotsman" fallacy. The fact that these cultures subsisted on concentrated food resources like fish or nuts is irrelevant to them because they argue that material conditions are less of a factor in hunter-gatherer social organization than things like freedom, choice, and flexibility.
Given the existence of these societies, Singh and Glowacki ask, why do we assume that similar societies could not have existed in the past prior to agriculture, and perhaps even back deep into the Paleolithic?
If hunter-gatherers can build large, sedentary societies, why do we assume that they lived in small bands for most of our species’ history? Surely our ancestors preferred lush spots over the dead-looking Kalahari. And, once in those spots, surely they had the same political savvy to engineer semi-fixed, stratified societies. Yet many leading anthropologists still imagine the 100,000 years preceding agriculture to resemble, with slight variations, the lives of the mid-20th-century !Kung.
Beyond the !Kung (Aeon)
Furthermore, rather than being typical of human social organization in the past, they argue that hunter-gatherers like the Bushmen of the Kalahari or the Hadza of Tanzania are instead atypical. This goes all the way back to the original studies of these groups in the 1960s, out of which emerged the "Kalahari Debate." Against those who claimed that these foragers represented a mostly accurate representation of early human social organization, some anthropologists argued instead that the !Kung foragers were an underclass created by interactions with the surrounding sedentary farming and herding societies—sort of like looking at people eating out of dumpsters and living in tents in American cities today as a reflection of some sort of primordial American lifestyle.
Sedentary and hierarchical hunter-gatherers are not unusual. If anything, it’s the profusion of mobile, egalitarian bands that might be the historical outlier. Rather than reflecting ancient ways, these small-scale societies are often products of modern forces. Rather than being untouched, many have been bullied, pacified, employed, enslaved and marginalised by colonial powers and agricultural neighbours...
According to Polly Wiessner, a leading anthropologist who has spent nearly four decades studying the !Kung, the egalitarianism for which the !Kung are so famous is a reflection not of a general hunter-gatherer lifestyle but of Bantu farmers displacing local leaders. ‘There’s indication that [the !Kung] had much stronger leadership,’ she said. ‘And they had some clan-like system that we can’t understand anymore and a more complex social organisation. We know that. We’ve all tried to reconstruct it, but we can’t. But before the Bantu came in, it would’ve been a somewhat different society.’
The Davids concur with Singh and Glowacki that the twentieth-century hunter-gatherer studies that informed so much of what anthropologists believe about the egalitarian origins of humanity may not be at all reflective of what human social organization was like in prehistory. They write:
The whole argument for an 'original affluent society' rested on a single fragile premise: that most prehistoric humans really did live in the specific manner of African foragers. As [Marshall] Sahlins was perfectly willing to admit, this was just a guess.
In his closing essay, he asked whether 'marginal hunters such as the Bushmen of the Kalahari' really were any more representative of the Paleolithic condition than the foragers of California (who placed great value on hard work) or the Northwest Coast (with their ranked societies and stockpiles of wealth)? Perhaps not, Sahlins conceded.
This often overlooked observation is crucial. It's not that Sahlins is suggesting that his own phrase 'original affluent society' is incorrect. Rather, he acknowledges that, just as there might have been many ways for free peoples to be free, there might have been more than just one way for (original) affluent societies to be affluent. (p. 139)
In another article for Aeon Magazine, Singh disputes the idea that every hunter-gatherer society was as generous or egalitarian as anthropologists like to claim. He also takes issue with the idea that there was no concept of ownership or private property in hunter-gatherer societies:
Some proponents of primitive communism concede that foragers owned small trinkets but insist they didn’t own wild resources. But this too is mistaken. Shoshone families owned eagle nests. Bearlake Athabaskans owned beaver dens and fishing sites. Especially common is the ownership of trees. When an Andaman Islander man stumbled upon a tree suitable for making canoes, he told his group mates about it. From then, it was his and his alone. Similar rules existed among the Deg Hit’an of Alaska, the Northern Paiute of the Great Basin, and the Enlhet of the arid Paraguayan plains. In fact, by one economist ’s estimate, more than 70 per cent of hunter-gatherer societies recognised private ownership over land or trees.
Primitive communism (Aeon)
Singh also asks what would explain social dominance behavior if humans lived in flat hierarchies for most our existence. Why, if we had done away with the steep hierarchies of our earlier primate ancestors, is this type of domineering behavior so common in people today? If there were no advantage to this sort of behavior, he says, then evolutionary theory would predict that it would have long since disappeared, and not suddenly reemerge only within the last ten thousand years after lying dormant for most of our evolutionary history.
What evidence do we have for these kinds of hierarchical and class-stratified societies all the way back in the Paleolithic? Singh and Glowacki point to a number of lavish burials from the Ice Age millennia before the transition to farming—such as ‘Il Principe’ from the Gravettian period—as potential evidence.
These same burials are also highlighted by Graeber and Wengrow in their book. However, the Davids argue that the intermittency of these burials suggests that human social organization seamlessly flipped back and forth between hierarchical and egalitarian social forms for tens of thousands of years before we somehow "got stuck" and simply forgot that we could rearrange the social order anytime we felt like it. They also point to the presence of skeletal deformities in these burials as indications that these individuals might have been what they call "play kings", installed as a form of elaborate theater—no more permanent or hereditary than high school prom kings and queens, or Miss America.
The Davids additionally argue that the sheer biological and physical diversity of humans in the Stone Age implies a similar diversity of social arrangements, including more and less hierarchical ones:
What were these ancestral societies like? At this point, at least, we should be honest and admit that, for the most part, we don't have the slightest idea. There's only so much you can reconstruct from cranial remains and the occasional piece of knapped flint—which is basically all we have...It seems reasonable to assume that behaviors like mating and child-rearing practices, the presence of absence of dominance hierarchies or forms of language and proto-language must have varied at least as much as physical types, and probably far more.(p. 81)
Dutton characterizes this as a 'craniometry' argument. Most anthropologists would argue that the form of human societies is determined primarily by material and environmental circumstances, technological sophistication, food production methods, population density, and similar factors, and not by skull shapes and bone sizes. For example, herding societies tend to have similar social organization, from the relatively squat Mongols, to the Huns with their elongated skulls, to the Dinka, many of whom stand around seven feet tall. This shows that social structure can't be inferred from skeletal remains alone, and neither can cultural diversity. And, as Dutton points out, paleoanthropologists have managed to reconstruct a surprisingly large amount of information about what human social organization might have been like in the Paleolithic despite the paucity of evidence (as a paper the Davids cite in their own endnotes demonstrates).
Both Singh/Glowacki and the Davids point out that the kinds of naturally superabundant locations occupied by the Calusa, the Jōmon, or the Kwakiutl were far more common in the Paleolithic era before food-producing peoples laid claim to the best and most fertile lands on the planet. Also, the people living in these kinds of environments were often the first to transition to farming erasing much of the evidence for previous complex forms of social organization. By contrast, the locations occupied by hunter-gatherers today are the places that proved to be too difficult for large-scale societies to form, either now or in the past. That makes them outliers rather than exemplars. Referencing this fact, the Davids write (emphasis mine):
Anyone who was still living mainly by hunting animals and gathering wild foodstuffs in the early to mid twentieth century was almost certainly living on land no one else particularly wanted. That's why so many of the best descriptions of foragers come from places like the Kalahari Desert or Arctic Circle. Ten thousand years ago, this was obviously not the case. Everyone was a forager; overall population densities were low. Foragers were therefore free to live in pretty much any sort of territory they fancied. All things being equal, those living off wild resources would tend to cleave to places where they were abundant. You would think that this is self-evident, but apparently it isn't.
Those who today describe people like the Calusa as 'atypical' because they had such a prosperous resource base want us to believe instead, that ancient foragers chose to avoid locations of this kind, shunning the rivers and coasts (which also offered natural arteries for movement and communication), because they were so keen to oblige later researchers by resembling twentieth century hunter-gatherers (the sort for which detailed scientific data is available today). We are asked to believe that it was only after they ran out of deserts and mountains and rainforests that they reluctantly started to colonize richer and more comfortable environments. We might call the the 'all the bad spots are taken!' argument. (pp. 153-154)
All this means that, of the many distinct cultural universes beginning to take shape across the world in the early Holocene, most were likely centered in environments of abundance rather than scarcity: more like the Calusa's than the !Kung's. (p. 156)
If this alternative theory is correct, then we may not have egalitarian roots after all, and have been suffering under domineering alpha-male bullies and despots throughout our entire career as a species. For most of us, then, spending one's life at the bottom rung of a social hierarchy is a permanent feature of the human condition, just like for our unfortunate chimp cousins (or lobsters!). As the old saying goes, when the monkey (or ape) sitting on the lowest branch of the tree looks up, he sees nothing but assholes.
One would think this would be dispiriting news, especially to a couple of prominent anarchists. But, to the Davids, this is actually good news! Why? Because, according to them, if humans have always lived in unequal societies, then therefore inequality has no origin. This means, they argue, that our social organization is now—and has always been—simply a matter of conscious, voluntary "choice," both now as well as 40,000 years ago, and material conditions had nothing to do with it. That these different social arrangements were all just “bold social experiments,” whether bands or tribes or chiefdoms. In a key passage they write:
There was no truly 'original' state of affairs. Anyone who insists that there is one is by definition trading in myths (Sahlins, at least, was fairly honest about this). Human beings have had many tens of thousands of years to experiment with different ways of life, long before any of them turned their had over to agriculture.
Instead, we might do better to look at the overall direction of the change, so as to understand how it bears on our question: how humans came largely to lose the flexibility and freedom that seems to have one characterized our social arrangements, and ended up stuck in permanent relations of dominance and subordination. (p. 140)
Spoiler: they never provide an answer to this question. But the approach they take means that many of the explanations given by anthropologists over the years are largely ignored and dismissed because they involve material conditions, and herein lies the problem with the book's main thesis as Dutton notes:
Why do [Graeber and Wengrow] throw away the analytical tools they need in order to explain the phenomena that they're describing, and that we need in order to understand how to build egalitarian institutions in this hierarchical world? I can only guess...but it seems pretty clear that, in Graeber and Wengrow's minds, if human beings are in fact limited in our choices by practical and material conditions, then that means we are in fact doomed to live [under] hierarchy because we live in civilization. Like, deep down inside, they're so afraid that Jared Diamond and Francis Fukuyama and Yuval Harari are right, that they don't want us to think about material conditions at all.
In other words, fear of the Futility Thesis. Dutton also highlights some disturbing right-wing implications of their "voluntary choice" theory, but I'll let you listen to his podcasts for that one. That's why I talked last time about the dangers of buying into the Futility Thesis, which it seems like they have done. Even anthropologists who are skeptical of the egalitarian origins theory like Singh and Glowacki still broadly accept the idea that certain specific material conditions are required in order for some groups to dominate others, rather than just self-conscious political choices and bold experimentation. In other words, they’re working from the same assumptions about how the environment shapes social structures as everyone else1.
Furthermore, Dutton argues that throwing out the egalitarian origins theory does far more damage to the cause of fighting for a more just and equal society than anything written by Diamond, Fukuyama, or Harari.
Which Theory is Correct?
So which version of human origins is correct?
The simple answer is, of course, that we don’t know since we don't have a time machine. Both sides make good arguments, and neither can be dismissed out of hand. And certainly more evidence will hopefully continue to accumulate. But, like Dutton, I tend to think that the egalitarian origins theory is closer to the truth.
First, as the opponents of egalitarian origins freely admit, there have no evidence whatsoever for the kinds of complex, stratified societies resembling the Calusa or the Pacific Northwest Coast Indians anywhere in the world before the Holocene era began roughly 12,000 years ago. Keep in mind that genetic evidence has confirmed that our species was confined strictly to Africa before around 50-70,000 years ago. Even Göbekli Tepe is only 11,500 years old—well within the Holocene.
Second, as they also admit, richly-adorned burials from the Ice Age are confined to one particular part of the World—Paleolithic Europe—a region where there was a unique set of especially harsh environmental conditions making it hard to extrapolate to anywhere else. And just because there were lavish grave goods associated with these burials does not necessarily mean that these people were leaders, much less kings or princes, or had any degree of actual political authority as Singh notes:
When I spoke with Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist at Durham University in the UK, he warned me not to confuse a special death with a special position in life. ‘Just because a youngster has all this “rich” clothing doesn’t mean that they were important,’ he told me. The gravesites exhibit enough quirks – oddly traumatic deaths, puzzling physical deformities – that Pettitt wonders whether there was more going on than just highborns dying in style.
As a result of this lack of evidence, they claim that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In other words, it's only a matter of time before we start finding evidence of these complex, stratified civilizations inside Africa:
Cognitively modern humans have been around for at least 200,000 years. We emerged, and spent most of our time, in Africa. Yet lavish Palaeolithic burials appear only around 30,000 years ago and then only in Europe. If our history has been socially diverse, if people lived not just in mobile bands but also in larger societies with hierarchy, sedentism and dense living, why is there such little evidence during the first 170,000 years of our history and in the continent in which we spent the bulk of our time? Where are the Princes of Palaeolithic Africa?
I asked this question to Christian Tryon, an archaeologist at the University of Connecticut who has worked in eastern Africa since 1997. The answer, he told me, ‘is probably that few people have looked.’ Africa remains an archaeological mystery. Compared with the throngs of fieldworkers digging through Europe, Tryon said, the number of people working in Africa is ‘trivial’...The archaeological record is critical for reconstructing human history—there’s no question—but, as Tryon said, ‘I’m always hesitant to put too much meaning into the absence of something.’
Perhaps, but until that time there's no reason to throw out the egalitarian origins theory which has been been extensively researched, studied and debated for over half a century. Surely the burden of proof is on the other side.
Also, it's hard to believe that there were enough people or population density inside Africa, to support these types of societies hundreds of thousands of years ago. Why couldn't people just escape from under the yoke of a potential tyrant when there were so few humans scattered across an entire continent? We don't know exact population sizes, of course, but all estimates indicate that human numbers were quite small—on the order of a few million—and distributed in low densities before the Holocene. If population densities were indeed low—as the Davids themselves admit—then how could complex, hierarchical societies form, much less endure? Would people simply "choose" to live their lives under chiefs and princes who told them what to do and kept most of the food and belongings for themselves?
Most humans were confined to the tropical regions before the exodus from Africa where food would have been fairly abundant year-round. There would have been no incentive to store large surpluses of foodstuffs as is necessary in places with a high degree of seasonality. If there were no surpluses, then there would be fewer ways for some people to accumulate more wealth and power than others, or to control the resources that everyone else needed to survive.
Finally, the environmental conditions were substantially different before 12,000 years ago. The climate in the Paleolithic was much colder and drier, and even the nitrogen content of the atmosphere was different making sustained food production nearly impossible. As I noted in the Hunter Gatherers and Health series, until the Upper Paleolithic around 40,000 years ago, the evidence indicates that human diets consisted primarily of large game animals with the remainder coming from plant foods. It is true that some of this was marine resources. But it's hard to reconcile a big game hunting lifestyle with a significant degree of political or social stratification, especially without extensive food storage and preservation. As the hunter-gatherer saying goes, the best place to store excess meat is in your friend's stomach.
Much of the evidence discussed above for egalitarian origins is reviewed in this paper: The causes and scope of political egalitarianism during the Last Glacial: a multi-disciplinary perspective (PDF)
By the Upper Paleolithic 40,000 years ago that situation starts to change, and sure enough, that is when the earliest Ice Age burials start to show show up in the archaeological record. It also happens to be when the Davids begin their story, conveniently dismissing everything that came before as unknowable. This caused one reviewer to jokingly refer to the book as "The Tea-time of Everything."
For all of these reasons, I don't think that extremely hierarchical forms of social organization could have existed before the Upper Paleolithic, and even if they did, they would have been vanishingly rare and short-lived. Too rare, in fact, to have been a significant shaper of human evolutionary behavior and preference. And only with the Holocene era did inequality and conflict really start to ramp up with food production and the resulting increase in numbers and population density it entailed.
What the Davids do get right is that the evidence is piling up indicating that prehistory was a lot more interesting than we previously believed, and that many of the narratives we've been living with for over a century about when and how civilization started are increasingly coming up short. But that's a topic for another time.
You can watch an interview with Singh here. He calls his model the "diverse histories" model in contrast to the "nomadic egalitarian" model. He discusses The Dawn of Everything at around 26 minutes in: "The Dawn of Everything makes some similar arguments [as we do]. It argues that there was much more social diversity or social flexibility. A fundamental difference between our argument and their argument is that they reject the predictive power of behavioral ecology. The reject this premise that a society's form shall reflect it's ecology...it's not deterministic, but I do think it is predictive that if you are in a particular environment then the likelihood is higher that you will exhibit a particular social structure."